"It's just the perfect size and fit... The eye-detection function was so fast and accurate, even when the light was dim."
Whether you're a new parent or a seasoned veteran, you'll sympathise with Austrian portrait photographer Christian Anderl when the first words he says about fatherhood are "sleepless nights" and "exhaustion". Following a trying time as a father, the Canon Ambassador has created a series of portraits with the Canon EOS R that document the raw nerve of emotion that is exposed when your life revolves around raising a child.
"I've been a father for five years now and there have been a lot of ups and downs," says Christian. "Around two years ago, I was interviewed for an antenatal class, where they train new mothers and fathers and prepare them for what's to come. They wanted to interview a few experienced parents and asked us what it was like during the pregnancy, and if I had any tips for new fathers.
"I found I became very emotional while recalling all this stuff. It reminded me that everything happens so fast: your partner gets pregnant and all of a sudden a baby is there, then you're sleepless and have to adapt to this new role in your life. Every day there's a new challenge. But it felt good to look back and openly discuss what I was thinking and feeling during this exhausting period."
It was this unexpectedly emotional trip down memory lane that got Christian thinking. We so often hear stories from mothers about the role of parenting and what it is to suddenly find your life revolving around a child, but why do we so rarely hear fathers' experiences? Why are there so few platforms that allow fathers to openly share their emotions?
A while after the interview – around two years, in fact – Christian and his wife found themselves once again tested when their son became ill and had to spend some time in intensive care. It was this difficult experience that convinced him to start developing the project that would eventually become Fatherhood.
"I have quite a big community of around 40,000 followers on Facebook and I also run online courses with 7,000 participants. Once I had the idea for the Fatherhood project I tried to activate my community by posting messages on social media. I also made a website specifically for the project where fathers could apply to take part. In the end we had 160 men who were ready to take part. All these guys wanted to talk about what it means to them to be a father. That ultimately convinced me of how valid this project was. Fathers actually want to talk about this kind of thing."
Additionally, Christian hit upon the smart idea of printing some simple business cards that carried his website's domain name, offering them to fathers that he saw on his travels around Vienna.
"I thought for a long time about how to shoot these portraits," says Christian. "My initial thinking revolved around environmental portraiture, where we would see the father in his surroundings at home or at work, perhaps in a suit behind a desk. But then I decided to do it in a studio because I wanted all these portraits to be uniform, using one very simple light and one hand-painted dark grey backdrop. That allowed me to focus on these people and their body language, and their facial expressions."
A key component of portrait photography is colour rendition, so Christian's lighting and camera setup ensured true-to-life skin tones were captured, adding to the project's authentic, honest look.
"When I teach portrait photography, I always tell people that a good portrait is not about posing people. You can do that for certain types of portraiture, of course, but character portraits like these are much more about capturing the moment – the right expressions, the right emotions. That's why I talked to these fathers while I was shooting. I wanted to find out what it is they were really into – maybe sports, music or their children. If you do that, your sitter will trust you and open up. In those moments while they're thinking, they'll open up and give you unique expressions."
In the end, Christian shot portraits of 11 fathers in his studio in Vienna, and interviewed all of them in order to get an insight into their lives. Christian says it was an intense experience; one that left him somewhere between laughing and crying. However, the positive reception to Fatherhood has been such that he is now determined to produce more images and, eventually, make a book.
For this project, Christian used Canon's full-frame mirrorless EOS R. "Honestly, the EOS R was a perfect fit for this project," he says. "I was nervous about using a new camera, particularly a mirrorless model, because I'm more used to using DSLRs, particularly the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II. But [when] I took the EOS R out of the box, it felt perfect in my hands. I actually have pretty big hands, so I tend to favour bigger cameras, but the EOS R was a perfect fit.
"It still feels like a Canon but somehow feels new and modern. I can also get the battery grip and make it bigger for my big hands. I also like the fact that you can use the same batteries you'd use for the EOS 5D Mark IV."
The experience turned out to be great for Christian for several other reasons, too. First, he took advantage of the EOS R's silent mode, which meant the sitter was not interrupted during his flow of thought by shutter clicks. Second, thanks to the low-light abilities and sensitivity of the EOS R's full-frame sensor, Christian could shoot with LED lighting instead of the strobes he'd normally use. Third, he could put the camera on a tripod and use the vari-angle touchscreen, not only to compose his images but also to focus.
"That was a really big deal for me, because it meant I could keep the flow of conversation going without constantly having to break eye contact by looking through the viewfinder," he says. "All of these things combined meant the father I was shooting forgot the camera was even there."
Christian usually relies on manual focus, so he says using autofocus was outside his comfort zone, but he found the Canon EOS R's intuitive focusing a revelation.
"That was where I was relying on the touchscreen focusing and it worked perfectly," he says. "Once I'd got over the quality of that, someone suggested using the face-detection and that blew my mind. Each and every face in each and every shot was pin-sharp. Further to the face detection, I could also use the eye-detection function – of course, sharp eyes are vital for any portrait. It was so fast and accurate, even when the light was dim. What was especially nice was that even if someone put their hands in front of their face, the camera still registered the exact area that needed to be in focus."
Like many portrait photographers, Christian generally prefers prime lenses over zoom lenses. "When I had the option to use the Canon RF 28-70mm f/2L USM lens, I was a little hesitant and thought that I'd just use it in between shooting with my normal prime lenses," he says. "Then I tried it and I was blown away."
"It's really sharp throughout the entire focal range, even when it's opened up to f/2. The depth of field almost feels equivalent to the quality you'd get shooting with a medium format camera. Also, shooting at the 28mm end means I can get even closer to the subject, which gives the final image a much more intimate feel."
Christian loved the results he got from the Canon EOS R. "The RAW files were so easy to polish," he says. "The colours and skin tones feel so natural. That colour accuracy is a big challenge in all photography, but here it looks beautiful."
So far, all Christian's images for Fatherhood have been shot in Vienna, Austria. However, his online community largely consists of people not just from Austria, but also from Germany and Switzerland. It's got Christian thinking that perhaps he could launch a studio tour throughout those countries.
"There are people in those countries that would really like to join in the Fatherhood project, but I'm so far away from them. With that in mind, I was thinking of renting some studios in other countries and then going to them. So, in my head Fatherhood is a project that is growing and kind of exploding. I could do so much more with this. There are just so many things to do!"
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